Searching for a home: A mother's mission to find somewhere to live in a cruel market

Julia Gabel
Julia Gabel

Multimedia Journalist

Our national housing crisis has left thousands of Kiwis trapped in a cycle of instability, caught between a brutally expensive private rental market and an oversubscribed public system. Investigations reporter Julia Gabel spoke to one young mother about what it's like to be squeezed out of the housing market.

Danielle Gartner, 31, sleeps in the living room of her father's house in Palmerston North, in a double bed wedged against the kitchen bench and taking up much of their communal space. She shares the bed with her 4-year-old son. Her 11-year-old daughter sleeps on a sofa next to them.

"I don't really have a choice," Gartner says.

A single mother of five, she moved in with her father and his partner in July because she didn't have anywhere else to go. For several years, she and her kids bounced from motel rooms to friends' and family's homes in Waikato while Gartner searched unsuccessfully for a stable long-term rental. She was exhausted and out of money.

Now there are 11 people crammed into her dad's three-bedroom house while Gartner hunts for somewhere more permanent. She's grateful for a place to stay, but it's hardly an ideal situation.

"[The kids] are constantly arguing, getting annoyed with each other," she says. "It's too small for them, too small of a space. They don't get time away from each other."

Gartner is among tens of thousands of New Zealanders trapped in a precarious living situation because of a desperate shortage of affordable housing. Squeezed between an increasingly expensive private rental market and an oversubscribed public housing system, they're trapped in a cycle of instability, surviving from week to week in whatever temporary accommodation they can find — motels, the spare rooms of friends and relatives, garages, cars.

Our national housing crisis may have been pushed from the headlines by the Delta outbreak in recent weeks, but people like Gartner — with low incomes, no savings, only ever one adverse event from disaster — are suddenly even more vulnerable now that the coronavirus has brought another period of sustained uncertainty.

In Gartner's quest for a family home, she has, by her count, applied for hundreds of rentals in the past four years. All but one of the applications, she says, was rejected.

She has had even less success applying for a place in government housing. At the end of June, according to the latest Ministry of Social Development (MSD) data, there were 24,474 people on the housing register — up by nearly a third year-on-year. Gartner has been on the waiting list since 2017, in which time it has grown by 350 per cent.

In MSD's assessment, Gartner is graded as a priority rating of A17, which means she is "at risk" and in high need of social housing. But with three priority levels above hers on the register, there are 5846 other people with a case at least as pressing, according to figures provided by the ministry to the Herald under the Official Information Act. All Gartner can do is keep waiting for a suitable house to come up.

For Gartner, life at the fourth-most-severe level of housing need is one of near-constant stress. Their transient living situation has been terrible for her mental health. She worries even more about the impact it's having on her children's wellbeing and education. It is particularly hard on her eldest son, 13, who has been diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia, and needs a high level of support.

Danielle Gartner, outside her father's home in Palmerston North, which she shares with 10 other people. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Danielle Gartner, outside her father's home in Palmerston North, which she shares with 10 other people. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Every day, Gartner searches for a house.

"First thing in the morning, last thing at night," she says.

Some afternoons, after the kids are finished school, Gartner hauls them into the car and takes them to viewings. When they've gone to sleep at night, she sits at her laptop, scanning rental listings.

The rejections pile up. In this market, few landlords will entertain the prospect of renting to an unemployed single mother with five children and two dogs.

"It destroys me a little bit, every day," she says. "Every time I open one of them up and it says, 'Sorry, unfortunately, your application has been declined.' You try so hard, and you just get, like, a kick in the gut, basically."

'Mummy's trying'

Gartner's housing nightmare started in 2017, with an email.

At the time, Gartner was living with her husband, who had recently started a floor tiling business, and their kids in a rental property in Cambridge. They were getting by. They didn't have a lot of money, but they were comfortable and able to pay their bills each week.

And then one day they received a 90-day notice asking them to leave the property.

"We didn't know why we were getting it," Gartner recalls. "Apparently, we had violated 18 things on the tenancy agreement. It was just little things like one too many vehicles on the property, having people coming over all the time, one little stain on the carpet."

Gartner was shocked. At a house inspection a few days earlier, they had been told by the rental agent that everything was okay.

Gartner and her husband spent many late nights searching for alternative rental properties. She visited estate agents and called friends asking if their landlords had other properties to rent.

But there were few available properties in their budget, and viewings for those that they could afford attracted a lot of people. It became clear they wouldn't find another house before they had to leave their current rental.

Time was up. Gartner called Work and Income and emergency accommodation was organised for them at a Hamilton motel.

Gartner, who was heavily pregnant, cried as she packed the family's belongings into plastic bins.

"I remember going through my head, was 'Okay, we've got to go into emergency housing, right, what do we need?'"

From emergency accommodation to a private rental and family's homes, Gartner and her children have moved numerous times over the past four years. Photo / Ana Marie Blanchett
From emergency accommodation to a private rental and family's homes, Gartner and her children have moved numerous times over the past four years. Photo / Ana Marie Blanchett

The kids could bring five toys each. Gartner's oldest son brought his toy cars. The girls packed their new Our Generation dolls.

Gartner packed their clothes, a slow cooker and electric frying pan, and her maternity bag. They put some of their belongings into a small storage unit and stored the rest with friends.

Their new home, the motel unit in Hamilton, did not feel safe.

"I was s***-scared," Gartner says.

One night the family were woken around 3am to the sound of smashing glass. Bottles and bricks were being thrown. They could hear people yelling outside their room.

"[The kids] woke up and they were terrified. I just told them it was okay.  Mum was going to keep them safe."

Only once in four years did Gartner secure a private rental for any length of time. In August 2017, the family moved into a house in Hamilton. It was good to begin with, Gartner says, but she began to feel unsafe after a rangehood fell off the wall, just missing her pregnant stomach. There were tensions with the rental agent. A neighbour swore at the kids while they played on the trampoline.

When their tenancy agreement ended, neither party wanted to renew the lease and Gartner once again began looking for another home.

In the past four years, the family have moved 13 times, shifting between the homes of friends and relatives and emergency accommodation. They lived in a series of motels, spending about three weeks at each.

It was highly disruptive for the children. They changed schools four times. And during this period Gartner's relationship with her husband, the father of her three youngest children, broke down and they separated.

The children stayed with Gartner, while their father visited them regularly at the emergency accommodation motels and paid child support. Today, he lives in Te Awamutu and video-calls his kids often, Gartner says, while they see each other in person about once a month. When the kids need something, he contributes financially where he can.

At a motel in Te Awamutu, they had to repack their bags every few days and move rooms to make way for guests who had booked rooms.

"It was such a hassle because I was heavily pregnant at that point," Gartner recalls. "I was just over it."

The kids "hated" living in motels, Gartner says. "They wanted their own home. They wanted their own rooms. They just didn't want to be in a motel no more."

"I kept saying, 'Mummy's trying. She's trying her hardest. She's trying to do everything she can.'

"It was just stressful. Washing them up and doing things like that was difficult. Making dinners for them was difficult. Just the normal daily routine was difficult."

All this time, Gartner scoured rental listings across Waikato, applying for hundreds of properties, by her count.

"Unfortunately, this listing has now been rented," said one email rejecting her application.

"Unfortunately, you were unsuccessful in your application," said another.

"We sympathise with you as the rental market is tight at the moment. As much as we would like to help everyone into a home, due to demand, we can't say yes to everyone."

On one occasion, Gartner recalls, she asked a property agent in Hamilton why she had been declined so many times. The agent told her it was most likely because she had so many children.

"Me and my children are in desperate need of a home," Gartner posted one night on Facebook.

"We have been looking and applying for everything online with no luck. There isn't any available emergency housing left. Would love the chance to be in a home, that's all we want for Xmas."

'I was begging'

In July, Gartner and the kids moved into her father's house in Palmerston North, where she spent part of her childhood. She wanted to be closer to family, but also figured it would be easier to find a property there than in Waikato.

She is still struggling to make ends meet.

Gartner's income is $1127 a week, made up of various benefits and disability allowances for her eldest son's medical needs. It doesn't go far.

Groceries for five kids: $400 a week. Payments on her car loan: $150. Repayments for various Work and Income hardship grants she's received over the years: $60.50.

She kicks in another $200 to her father's household bills.

Then there are fees for a rent-to-buy washing machine and dryer. Rental of a storage unit. Other debts to repay. Insurance. Petrol. Phone. Internet. Netflix for the kids.

On a good week, she might have $65 left over.

"It's really not a lot of money, especially with five children," she says.

Gartner figures she can afford to pay around $450 a week in rent, more than a third of her income, but there are hardly any suitable houses available in Palmerston North in her budget.

With no savings, there is little room to account for emergencies.

One day, one of the kids dropped the slow cooker that Gartner relied on to make easy meals. She couldn't afford to buy another one and cooking meals for her five kids in a motel room, which didn't have a proper stove, was "really difficult".

Another crisis began when her 11-year-old daughter had a growth spurt.

Rushing to get everyone ready for school one morning, Gartner realised her daughter's clothes no longer fit her. She had shot up two sizes.

Gartner rang a Work and Income office in Palmerston North to request a clothing hardship grant so that she could buy her daughter new clothes for school. She was told to come to the office to make the application in person. Standing in the queue later that morning, holding her daughter's hand, Gartner held back tears.

In her telling, Winz refused the grant. Winz says it was "happy to help" but needed more paperwork, and by the time it followed up several days later Gartner said she'd found the money somewhere else. Either way, she left the office that without the approval and feeling defeated.

All Gartner wants is a stable home her family feels settled, where they can create memories. Photo / Mark Mitchell
All Gartner wants is a stable home her family feels settled, where they can create memories. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Gartner went back to her car and cried. "She was wearing my clothes," Gartner says. "I couldn't even give her a pair of my shoes because I don't have any others.

"I was pleading, I was almost at the point of begging. I was begging basically."

Gartner is so frantic trying to find a house and organise the kids that she doesn't prioritise her own mental wellbeing, which has cost her.

"I don't really have time," she says. "Even though I know that's bad."

She regularly has panic attacks. On one occasion, Gartner says she blacked out in the aisle of a Countdown supermarket and woke up with a police officer telling her an ambulance was on the way.

"You just try and take one day at a time," she says. "But it's just really, really hard.

"By the end of the day, I'm just so exhausted, just so tired, I don't want to do it anymore, but I know that I have to do it. I've got to carry on because I've got my kids. That's the one thing that keeps me going is my kids."

'It feels like I can't provide for my children'

Back at Gartner's father's house in Palmerston North one afternoon in September, the house is buzzing. Children. Pets. Laughter.

Gartner is on a video call, but her daughter Jennah grabs the phone. Jennah has bright green eyes and a beaming smile that disappears down the sides of her face as she looks into the camera.

"I'm Elsa!" she says, holding up a new backpack and wallet with Frozen branding.

Jennah puts a Messenger filter on her face, distorting it into a cartoon; then a clown; then another with a lime green snot running down her nose.

She runs across the room, where she introduces her pet turtles Raphael and Michelangelo and a Jack Russell terrier. "This is Socks," she says.

Her older sister, Kaysey, grabs the phone. She's written a song at school that day.

"Run away, run away, there's nowhere to go," she sings gently, holding open her red school notebook.

As Gartner takes the phone back, Jennah starts climbing up her leg, laughing hysterically.

Gartner says she wants little more than for her kids to be settled in a home of their own, where they can create memories.

"It's heartbreaking, because it feels like I can't provide for my children correctly," she says.

"[I'm] just trying to keep a roof over these kids' heads, and not constantly moving from emergency housing to friend's house to family's house. It's really, really hard. My father would tell you the amount of times I've broken down to him because I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do."